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Theistic Modal Realism
1. Introduction
In the Leibnizian philosophical tradition Phil Quinn maintained that a strong
improvability principle must govern the choices of perfect beings.
If an omnipotent and superlatively good moral agent were to
actualize a possible world he would actualize some actualizable
world of unsurpassable moral goodness.1
Since it is impossible for a perfect being to actualize more than one possible
world, theists in the Leibnizian tradition are committed to the unlikely
proposition that the actual world, with all of its evil, is as good as any other
logically possible world.2 Call that the Less-than-Best Problem.
One theistic response to the Less-than-Best Problem is to maintain that every
possible world is a real, concrete universe out there.3 Theistic modal realists might
take the position that our world is simply one among an infinite plurality of
concrete universes actualized in logical space. If there is a best possible universe,
theistic modal realists might argue, there is no moral reason why it should be our
universe. There is no moral reason why the individual inhabitants of our world
should enjoy the best possible experiences rather than the individual inhabitants
of other real concrete universes. And if there are some quite bad possible worlds
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then there is no reason why ours should not be among them. In (2) I briefly
describe theistic modal realism. In (3-7) I argue that theistic modal realism has
the resources to resolve a series of problems derived from the Principle of
Plenitude including the Modal Problem of Evil and the Less-than-Best Problem.
2. Theistic Modal Realism?
Mark Heller offers this initial characterization of genuine modal realism.
Modal realists . . . believe that the actual world is a concrete object
of which you and I are literal parts, and he believes that other
worlds are also concrete objects some of which literally include
other people as parts. Merely possible worlds and merely possible
people really exist despite their lack of actuality.4
Suppose there is an infinite plurality of possible worlds. Every possible world is
a real, concrete universe and each world is a causally and spatiotemporally
closed individual. None of the infinite plurality of possible worlds stands in any
causal or spatiotemporal relation to any world other than itself. And no world
stands in a causal or spatiotemporal relation to the parts of any worlds other
than its own parts.5
We are parts of the actual world or worldmates because we stand in
spatiotemporal relations to one another. And for any possible world w the
individuals in w are parts of w because they stand in literal spatiotemporal
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relations to one another. All individuals are worldbound. No individual exists in
more than one world. Among other things, this entails that our world does not
overlap any other world with respect to people, quarks, leptons, water
molecules, or any other part of the world. But for any individuals at any world
there is some world containing duplicates of those individuals and many worlds
containing counterparts of those individuals.
Suppose that at each concrete, spatiotemporally isolated universe there is
an Anselmian perfect being that actualized that universe.6 For every valuable
experience that an individual could have there is some individual that does have
that experience in some world. And for every valuable thing that could exist
there is some world at which that valuable thing does exist.
3. Plenitude Problems for Theistic Modal Realism
According to Lewis's initial formulation of the Principle of Plenitude absolutely
every way that a world could possibly be is a way that some world is and
absolutely every way that a part of a world could possibly be is a way that some
part of some world is.7 But to express the plenitude of possible worlds, Lewis
appeals to a Principle of Recombination.
. . . according to [the principle of recombination] patching together
of parts of different possible worlds yields another possible world.
Roughly speaking, the principle is that anything can coexist with
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anything else, at least provided that they occupy distinct
spatiotemporal positions. Likewise anything can fail to coexist with
anything else. Thus if there could be a dragon and there could be a
unicorn, but there couldn't be a dragon and unicorn side by side,
that would be an unacceptable gap in logical space, a failure of
plenitude.8
The Principle of Plenitude is supposed to ensure that there are no gaps in logical
space. There is some real concrete universe for every way a world could be. Of
course it is difficult to know exactly how many ways a world could be, but the
plurality of worlds would presumably include some worlds that are on balance
extremely bad.9 Otherwise there would again be an unacceptable gap.
Suppose then that w is an on balance extremely bad world. It is of course
true at w that w is actual. According to a well-known problem from Ted
Guleserian an Anselmian perfect being at w could have prevented w from
becoming actual. Anselmian perfect beings have all of the attributes of
perfection: essential moral perfection, essential omnipotence, essential
omniscience, and necessary existence. Here is Guleserian,
Presumably, an omnipotent being has the power to prevent any
possible world from becoming actual, since all one has to do to
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prevent a world from becoming actual is to bring about some state
of affairs that is not included in that world.10
So it is true at w that a perfect being actualizes w. Specifically it is true at w that a
perfect being either brings about w or allows w to be actual. But then it must be
true at w that a perfect being is morally permitted to actualize w. Perfect beings
cannot perform any impermissible actions. But according to Guleserian it is
necessarily false that a perfect being is permitted to actualize w.
There is a possible world w such that necessarily [there is a perfect
being in w] only if it is not morally permissible for [that being] to
allow w to be actual.11
The problem then is that theistic modal realism entails that each possible world is
a real concrete universe that a perfect being actualizes in that world. But the
Principle of Plenitude entails that at least some of those worlds are so bad that no
perfect being could actualize them. Theistic modal realism is therefore
inconsistent with the Principle of Plenitude.
4. Plentitude Problems Reconsidered.
Theistic modal realists might decide to abandon the Principle of Plenitude. Thomas
Morris has urged, for instance, that Anselmian theists should conclude that there
are no possible worlds that a perfect being could not actualize.
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. . . [An Anselmian] God is a delimiter of possibilities. If there is a
being who exists necessarily and is necessarily omnipotent,
omniscient, and good then many states of affairs which otherwise
would represent genuine possibilities, and which by all non-theistic
tests of logic and semantics do represent possibilities, are strictly
impossible in the strongest sense.12
But the modal position Morris describes begs the central question at issue. Even a
modest position on the epistemic status of modal intuition urges that at least
some possible worlds are on balance extremely bad. Morris's position is that, for
committed Anselmians, the otherwise credible deliverances of modal intuition are
not reliable guides to what is genuinely possible. But one of the questions at issue
is whether anyone ought to be a committed Anselmian in the first place. And
certainly modal intuition plays a large role in delimiting possibilities for those
considering the possibility of an Anselmian God.
Theistic modal realists might urge instead that the sum total of value
across the vast pattern of possible worlds is on balance positive or, at least, on
balance neutral. On this view there are many real concrete universes that are on
balance extremely bad and there are many real concrete universes that are on
balance extremely good, but the sum total of value across all possible worlds is
positive or neutral. And this position is consistent with the Principle of Plenitude.
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Theistic modal realists might then conclude that the existence of a perfect being
is compatible with the sum total of value across worlds.
But no doubt the deliverances of modal intuition are not especially reliable
on this question. I have no intuition, for instance, that it's possible to sum the
value across worlds. And even if it were possible, a theistic modal realist must
still concede that some possible worlds are on balance extremely bad. More
worrisome, they must concede that a perfect being might actualize such a world.
Certainly theistic modal realists need some explanation of how a perfect being
might actualize an on-balance very bad world.
5. Plenitude Problems Resolved.
As we have noted, the traditional Anselmian God is essentially morally
perfect, essentially omniscient, essentially omnipotent and necessarily existent.
Since the Principle of Plenitude entails that there are at least some worlds that are
on-balance very bad, we must conclude that the traditional Anselmian God exists
in some on-balance very bad worlds.
Let w be an on balance very bad world. According to theistic modal
realism w is no different from the actual world in ontological kind. Both are
concrete worlds containing various kinds of individuals instantiating various
properties. The suffering and pain endured in w is no less bad than the pain and
suffering endured in our world. It is true at our world that the suffering endured
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is actual suffering. And of course it is true at w that the suffering endured at w is
actual suffering. But Guleserian objects that a perfect being existing at w could
have prevented the bad world w from becoming actual, since an omnipotent
being has the power to prevent any possible world in which he exists from
becoming actual. It is true at w that a perfect being either brings about w or
allows w to be actual. But Guleserian urges that it is necessarily false that a
perfect being is permitted to actualize any world as bad as w.
The strong atheological conclusion that Guleserian defends is that there
could not be an on balance bad world w at which it is true that an Anselmian
God actualized w. Call the strong atheological claim SA.
SA.
If an Anselmian God existed, then there would exist no on balance very
bad worlds w.
We have assumed that w is an on balance very bad world. To make the problem
more concrete, suppose Smith is a moral agent in w and Smith is suffering some
terrible affliction. Suppose it is true in w that Smith is a good and just person. He
is especially undeserving of the suffering he has endured. Assume further that
the perfect being in w could have prevented all of the suffering Smith has
endured without producing a greater evil or preventing a greater good.
According to SA, it is false that there is any world in which an Anselmian God
allows good and just moral agents to suffer undeserved, preventable, and terrible
afflictions.
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Now suppose that the perfect being in w had brought about some state of
affairs that is not included in that world. Suppose, for instance, that the perfect
being in w had prevented all of Smith's undeserved suffering. Would it then have
been true that there is no bad world w in which a moral agent no less good and
just than Smith endures the same preventable suffering that Smith endures in w?
The unfortunate answer is no. An Anselmian God simply could not ensure that
there is no on-balance very bad world w at which good agents suffer undeserved
evils. Call the necessity of preventable evil thesis PE.
PE. It is impossible that there should fail to be a bad world w at which
it is true that God exists and good and just moral agents endure
undeserved and preventable suffering.
No matter what the perfect being in w had done or prevented or changed, it
would be true that there is a bad world w that includes a perfect being that
actualizes w. No matter what the perfect being in w had done or prevented or
changed, it would be true that there is a world in which a good and just moral
agent endures undeserved and preventable suffering.
According to SA, an Anselmian God would be morally forbidden to
actualize the world w in which Smith suffers undeservedly and preventably.
But, necessarily, had the Anselmian God prevented the suffering of Smith in w,
there would have been a moral equivalent of Smith enduring precisely the same
undeserved and preventable suffering in world w'. PE guarantees that in some
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world, some good and just moral agent would endure the same undeserved
suffering as Smith. So it is morally forbidden for the Anselmian God to actualize
the world w in which Smith suffers undeservedly only if there is some moral
reason why the morally equivalent counterparts of Smith ought to endure the
undeserved suffering rather than Smith. But the relevant counterparts of Smith
are no more deserving and no less good than Smith. So there is no moral reason
why any of the relevant counterparts ought to endure the suffering rather than
Smith.
The moral position of the Anselmian God is in perfect analogy to the
moral position of a lifeguard that can prevent each of two good and just persons
from drowning, but cannot prevent both good and just persons from drowning. 13
Call that a Rescue Situation. In Rescue Situations a lifeguard is morally permitted to
allow one person to drown if the cost of one life is necessary to the preventing
another equally deserving person from drowning. Theistic modal realists should
conclude that the Anselmian God is morally permitted to allow Smith to suffer
undeservedly if the cost of allowing Smith to suffer undeservedly is necessary to
the prevention of equally bad undeserved suffering.
6. The Modal Realist's Argument
It is definitive of Rescue Situations that some person P can save another being S
and can save S' but cannot save both S and S'. Since it is impossible to actualize a
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world in which both S and S' are saved, P is permitted to save S at the necessary
cost of not saving S'. In general most have been willing to accept the following
justification for the Rescuer saving one person and allowing another to drown.
(I)
1. R prevents S from drowning only if R allows S' to drown.
2. It is permissible that R prevents S from drowning.
4. /:. It is permissible that R allows S' to drown. 1,2
(I) seems clearly to justify the Rescuer in saving one person and allowing another
to drown. But theistic modal realists have a perfectly analogous argument that
justifies God in preventing Smith's counterparts from suffering and allowing
Smith to suffer undeservedly.14 The representation of the analogous Anselmian
argument requires a domain that is suitably large. Counterpart theory provides a
domain of quantification that includes every possible world and everything in
every possible world. We include among the existing objects, then, every actual
object and every possible object. We retain the familiar assumptions that
properties are sets of possible objects and propositions are sets of possible
worlds.
In Rescue situations, there is some person R that can save person S and
and can save person S' but cannot save both S and S'. And we noted that since it
is impossible to actualize a world in which both S and S' are saved, R is
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permitted to save S at the necessary cost of not saving S'. [We set aside or
stipulate that S and S' are otherwise equally worthy of being saved; that the
consequences of saving both are the same; and in general that things are
otherwise equal.].
Theistic modal realists begin with the assumption that there is a total set
of worlds W in which God prevents the undeserved suffering that Smith actually
endures. Each of these worlds includes counterparts of Smith. Those
counterparts are the representatives of Smith in those worlds. They are indeed
Smith himself according to each of those worlds. Each of these counterparts is the
person Smith would have been had Smith's suffering been prevented in some
way. (p. 28, CTQML). Further, these worlds exhaust the possible ways in which
God might have prevented the undeserved suffering that Smith actually endures.
The premises of the argument are set out in the language of counterpart
theory. Let c1-cn name the possible worlds in which God prevents Smith's
suffering. Every individual existing in a world is world-bound. Let b1-bn name
Smith's counterparts in worlds c1-cn respectively. Let Smith take the name s and
suppose Smith exists in the actual world @. The Anselmian God possesses all of
the traditional divine attributes in every world. The initial premise in the theistic
argument is the conjunction in (1).
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1. Wc1 & …&Wcn & Ic1b1&…&Icnbn & [email protected] & Cb1s&…& Cbns & Gb1 &…& Gbn.
Premise (1) says that c1 –cn are possible worlds, b1-bn are in worlds c1-cn
respectively, s is in the actual world @, b1-bn are counterparts of s,
and God prevents the undeserved suffering of all of Smith's counterparts b1-bn.
We make no assumptions concerning the number of worlds in which God
prevents Smith's suffering except that these constitute all and only the
permissible ways for God to prevent that suffering.
According to premise (2) God prevents the undeserved suffering of
Smith's counterparts b1-bn only if God does not prevent the undeserved suffering
to Smith.
2. Gb1 &…& Gbn  ~Gs
But why is (2) true? By hypothesis b1-bn exhaust the possible ways in which God
might have prevented the undeserved suffering that Smith endures. So it is
impossible that God prevent the undeserved suffering of b1-bn and also prevent
the undeserved suffering to Smith. It is true that God might have prevented
Smith's suffering, but had he done so, it would be true that some counterpart of
Smith, b1-bn, endured the undeserved suffering instead. Not even an Anselmian
God could bring it about that Gb1 &…& Gbn & Gs.
14
Premise (3) expresses the fact that it is morally permissible for God to
prevent the undeserved suffering to Smith's counterparts. Since the suffering that
Smith's counterparts endure is preventable and gratuitous, the proposition in (3)
is uncontroversial. [It might be urged that God is obligated to prevent any
gratuitous suffering. In that case, (3) would have to be strengthened. But this I
deny: God is not obligated in the same way that the rescuer is not obligated to
prevent one person from drowning rather than another. We should also mention
here how this result preserves divine freedom: it is not necessary that God
prevent every instance of gratuitous evil on this account, so God's freedom in
action is not compromised.]
3. P(Gb1&…& Gbn)
But if premises (1)-(3) are true then God is permitted not to prevent the
undeserved suffering of Smith.
4. P~Gs
We know that it is impossible that Gb1&…& Gbn-1 & Gbs. It is impossible, that is,
that God prevent the undeserved suffering of all of Smith's counterparts and also
prevent the undeserved suffering of Smith.
It might be objected that the Anselmian God ought not to be concerned
about every moral agent that exists, but only about every moral agents that
actually exists. An Anselmian God that permits an actual moral agent to suffer
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undeservedly in order to prevent an existing, non-actual moral agent from
suffering, does something morally wrong.
But this objection undermines the Plentitude Problem for theism. It entails that in
some non-actual worlds an essentially morally perfect being may simply allow a
moral agent to suffer undeservedly and preventably. But of course it is false that
in some non-actual worlds an essentially morally perfect being may simply allow
underserved and preventable suffering. Unlike the rest of us Anselmian Gods are
morally perfect in every world.
An essentially morally perfect being can permit undeserved and
preventable suffering only if it is the necessary cost of preventing equally bad
suffering. In particular, theistic modal realists argue that an essentially morally
perfect being is permitted to prevent good and just moral agents from suffering
undeservedly in every world in which he does so, at the necessary cost of
allowing Smith to suffer undeservedly in w.15
7. Less-than-Best Problems Resolved
The theistic modal realist's solution to the Less-than-Best Problem concedes that
our world is not the best possible world. But it should be obvious that the
theistic modal realist will again respond that a perfect being is morally permitted
not to make the lives of our actual rational and sentient beings better. Certainly,
a perfect being can improve the lives of every actual rational and sentient being.
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Certainly it would be a moral improvement if he did. But we know that,
necessarily, some group or other of morally equivalent rational and sentient
counterparts is such that their lives are not improved. It is impossible that a
perfect being should improve the lives of every morally equivalent group of
rational and sentient counterparts in every world. There is therefore no moral
reason why a perfect being must improve the lives of all actual rational and
sentient beings rather than improve the lives of their morally equivalent
counterparts. The theistic modal realist contends again that the perfect being is in
circumstances tragically similar to the unfortunate lifeguard that can rescue each
drowning swimmer, but horribly cannot rescue all.
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Notes
1
Phil Quinn, 'God, Moral Perfection and Possible Worlds' in Frederick Sontag
and M. Darrol Bryant (eds.) God: The Contemporary Discussion (New York:
Rose of Sharon Press, 1982) p. 212.
2
Quinn is not especially clear on this issue. He defines an actualizable world
as a world that an omnipotent being could actualize. Since that definition is
nearly trivial, it remains unclear whether an omnipotent being could
actualize every logically possible world. On the other hand he is explicit in
wanting not to decide the issue either way. See, Phil Quinn, 'God, Moral
Perfection and Possible Worlds' op. cit. p. 205 ff.
3
See Daniel Nolan, David Lewis (Quebec, Canada: McGill-Queen's Press,
2005) p. 55 ff.
4
See Mark Heller, 'The Immorality of Modal Realism, Or: How I learned to
Stop Worrying and Let the Children Drown', Philosophical Studies 114 (2003)
1-22.
5
See John Divers, Possible Worlds (New York: Routledge, 2002) p. 46 ff.
6
Anselmian eternalism is assumed here to be compatible with God's
omnipresence. Since we stand in a spatio-temporal relation (or a close
analogue of a spatio-temporal relation) to a God that is omnipresent, even if
that being is atemporal, we are to that extent world-mates with God.
7
See David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers,
1986) p. 86.
18
8
Ibid., p. 87-88.
9
It is not clear that the Principle of Plenitude entails that there would be an
infinite number of worlds or, as Peter van Inwagen has objected, that there
would be more than 17 possible worlds. It is an important problem but I do
not address it here. See David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds, op. cit., p.
86.
10
See Theodore Guleserian, 'God and Possible Worlds: The Modal Problem of
Evil' Noûs Vol. 17 (1983) 221-238.
11
Ibid., p. 224
12
See Thomas V. Morris, 'The Necessity of God's Goodness' in his, Anselmian
Explorations: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Indiana: University of Notre
Dame Press, 1987) pp. 42-69.
13
Since Guleserian argument adopts Alvin Plantinga's modal metaphysics, it
is important to note that, mutatis mutandis, the very same reply is available
to those who endorse Plantinga's form of modal realism.
14
Compare Laura Garcia, 'A Response to the Modal Problem of Evil', Faith
and Philosophy Vol. 1, (1984) 378-388. She renders the Guleserian's
argument as follows:
1. Necessarily, there is something that is essentially OOM.
2. Necessarily, for every world w and individual x, if w is actual and x is
OOM in w, then x allows w to be actual.
From concept of Omnipotence.
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3. Necessarily, for every w and every x, if x is OOM in w and x allows w to be
actual, then it is morally permissible for x to allow w to be actual. From
concept of Moral Perfection.
4. For every w, w includes the state of affairs that there is an OOM being x
such that it is morally permissible for x to allow w to be actual.
5. There is a possible world w such that, necessarily, for every x, if x is OOM,
then it is not morally permissible for x to allow w to be actual. Contradiction,
4 and 5.
I reject premise (5) in Guleserian's reductio. An Anselmian perfect being is
permitted to actualize the bad world w in which Smith suffers preventably if
it is true that, (i) for every world w' in which God prevents Smith's
counterparts from suffering, God is permitted to prevent Smith's counterparts
from suffering and (ii) necessarily, God prevents Smith's counterparts from
suffering in every world in which he does so only if God does not prevent
Smith from suffering. Given (i) and (ii) God is permitted to allow Smith to
suffer preventably. Of course, it is not permissible to let someone suffer
preventably, other things being equal. But other things are certainly not
equal in Lifeguard Situations. The form of the argument is (i) PA, (ii) □(A
B), (iii)
15
PB.
The argument is familiar from Lifeguard Situations. Let W be the total set
of worlds in which God prevents good and just moral agents from suffering
undeservedly. Certainly God is permitted to prevent all of those good and just
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moral agents from suffering undeservedly. But it is equally clear that □(W →
Smith suffers undeservedly), where '□' represents broad logical necessity.
Since we expect that permission is closed under implication, it is permissible
for God to allow Smith to suffer undeservedly and preventably.
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